Meditation and 12 Steps to Innovate for Recovering Humans

The Jesus Prayer Meditation

This article is from Wikipedia, Jesus Prayer. (2009, May 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:57, May 16, 2009.

The Jesus Prayer (Η Προσευχή του Ιησού) or "The Prayer" (Euchee, Greek: Η Ευχή – the Wish), also called the Prayer of the Heart(Καρδιακή Προσευχή) and "Prayer of the Mind (Nous)" (Νοερά Προσευχή), is a short, formulaic prayer often uttered repeatedly. It has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of the Eastern Churches. The exact words of the prayer have varied from the simplest possible involving Jesus‘ name to the more common extended form:

Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, Υιέ του Θεού, ελέησόν με τον αμαρτωλόν.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

The Jesus Prayer is for the Eastern Orthodox one of the most profound and mystical prayers and it is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. Its practice is an integral part of the eremitic tradition of prayer known as Hesychasm (Greek: ἡσυχάζω, hesychazo, "to keep stillness"), the subject of the Philokalia (Greek: φιλοκαλείν, "love of beauty"), a collection of 4th to 15th century texts on prayer, compiled in the late 18th century by St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite and St. Makarios of Corinth. The monastic state of Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

While its tradition, on historical grounds, also belongs to the Eastern Catholics, and there have been a number of Roman Catholic texts on the Jesus Prayer, its practice has never achieved the same popularity in the Western Church as in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Moreover, the Eastern Orthodox theology of the Jesus Prayer enunciated in the 14th century by St. Gregory Palamas has never been fully accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. Nonetheless, in the Jesus Prayer there can be seen the Eastern counterpart of the Rosary, which has developed to hold a similar place in the Christian West.


The prayer’s origin is most likely the Egyptian desert, which was settled by the monastic Desert Fathers in the fifth century.

The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates back to at least the fifth century. The earliest known mention is in On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination of St. Diadochos of Photiki (400-ca.486), a work found in the first volume of the Philokalia. The Jesus Prayer is described in Diadochos’s work in terms very similar to St. John Cassian‘s (ca.360-435) description in the Conferences 9 and 10 of the repetitive use of a passage of the Psalms. St. Diadochos ties the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the purification of the soul and teaches that repetition of the prayer produces inner peace.

The use of the Jesus Prayer is recommended in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St. John Climacus (ca.523–606) and in the work of St. Hesychios the Priest (ca. 8th century), Pros Theodoulon, found in the first volume of the Philokalia. Ties to a similar prayer practice and theology appear in the 14th century work of an unknown English monk The Cloud of Unknowing. The use of the Jesus Prayer according to the tradition of the Philokalia is the subject of the 19th century anonymous Russian spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim.

Though the Jesus Prayer has been practiced through the centuries as part of the Eastern tradition, in the 20th century it also began to be used in some Western churches, including some Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.


The Jesus Prayer is composed of two statements. The first one is a statement of faith, acknowledging the divine nature of Christ. The second one is the acknowledgment of ones own sinfulness. Out of them the petition itself emerges: "have mercy."

The hesychastic practice of the Jesus Prayer is founded on the biblical view by which God’s name is conceived as the place of his presence. The Eastern Orthodox mysticism has no images or representations. The mystical practice (the prayer and the meditation) doesn’t lead to perceiving representations of God (see below Palamism). Thus, the most important means of a life consecrated to praying is the invoked name of God, as it is emphasized since the 5th century by the Thebaid anchorites, or by the later Athonite hesychasts. For the Eastern Orthodox the power of the Jesus Prayer comes not only from its content, but from the very invocation of the Jesus’ name.

Scriptural roots

Theologically, the Jesus Prayer is considered to be the response of the Holy Tradition to the lesson taught by the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, in which the Pharisee demonstrates the improper way to pray by exclaiming: "Thank you Lord that I am not like the Publican", whereas the Publican prays correctly in humility, saying "Lord have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18:10-14).

Palamism, the underlying theology

Icon of the Transfiguration of Jesus by Theophanes the Greek (15th century, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). Talking with Christ: Elijah (left) and Moses (right). Kneeling: Peter, James, and John.

Main articles: Tabor Light and World (theology)

The Essence-Energies distinction, a central principle in the Eastern Orthodox theology, was formulated by St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century in support of the mystical practices of Hesychasm and against Barlaam of Seminara. It stands that God’s essence (Greek: Οὐσία, ousia) is distinct from God’s energies, or manifestations in the world, by which men can experience the Divine. The energies are "unbegotten" or "uncreated". They were revealed in various episodes of the Bible: the burning bush seen by Moses, the Light on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration.

Apophatism (negative theology) is the main characteristic of the Eastern theological tradition. Incognoscibility isn’t conceived as agnosticism or refusal to know God, because the Eastern theology isn’t concerned with abstract concepts; it is contemplative, with a discourse on things above rational understanding. Therefore dogmas are often expressed antinomically. This form of contemplation, is experience of God, illumination called the Vision of God or in Greek theoria.

For the Eastern Orthodox the knowledge or noesis of the uncreated energies is usually linked to apophatism.

Repentance in Eastern Orthodoxy
See also: Eastern Orthodox view of sin

Christ the Redeemer by Andrei Rublev (ca. 1410, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).

The Eastern Orthodox Church holds a non-juridical view of sin, by contrast to the satisfaction view of atonement for sin as articulated in the West, firstly by Anselm of Canterbury (as debt of honor) and Thomas Aquinas (as a moral debt). The terms used in the East are less legalistic (grace, punishment), and more medical (sickness, healing) with less exacting precision. Sin, therefore, does not carry with it the guilt for breaking a rule, but rather the impetus to become something more than what men usually are. One repents not because one is or isn’t virtuous, but because human nature can change. Repentance (Greek: μετάνοια, metanoia, "changing one’s mind") isn’t remorse, justification, or punishment, but a continual enactment of one’s freedom, deriving from renewed choice and leading to restoration (the return to man’s original state). This is reflected in the Mystery of Confession for which, not being limited to a mere confession of sins and presupposing recommendations or penalties, it is primarily that the priest acts in his capacity of spiritual father. The Mystery of Confession is linked to the spiritual development of the individual, and relates to the practice of choosing an elder to trust as his or her spiritual guide, turning to him for advice on the personal spiritual development, confessing sins, and asking advice.

As stated at the local Council of Constantinople in 1157, Christ brought his redemptive sacrifice not to the Father alone, but to the Trinity as a whole. In the Eastern Orthodox theology redemption isn’t seen as ransom. It is the reconciliation of God with man, the manifestation of God’s love for humanity. Thus, it is not the anger of God the Father but His love that lies behind the sacrificial death of his son on the cross.

The redemption of man is not considered to have taken place only in the past, but continues to this day through theosis. The ini­tiative belongs to God, but presupposes man’s active accep­tance (not an action only, but an attitude), which is a way of perpetually receiving God.

Distinctiveness from analogues in other religions

The practice of contemplative or meditative chanting is known from several religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam (e.g. japa, zikr). The form of internal contemplation involving profound inner transformations affecting all the levels of the self is common to the traditions that posit the ontological value of personhood. The history of these practices, including their possible spread from one religion to another, is not well understood. Such parallels (like between unusual psycho-spiritual experiences, breathing practices, postures, spiritual guidances of elders, peril warnings) might easily have arisen independently of one another, and in any case must be considered within their particular religious frameworks.

Although some aspects of the Jesus Prayer may resemble some aspects of other traditions, its Christian character is central rather than mere "local color." The aim of the Christian practicing it, is not limited to attaining humility, love, or purification of sinful thoughts, but rather it is becoming holy and seeking union with God (theosis), which subsumes all the aforementioned virtues. Thus, for the Eastern Orthodox:

  • The Jesus Prayer is, first of all, a prayer addressed to God. It’s not a means of self-deifying or self-deliverance, but a counterexample to Adam’s pride, repairing the breach it produced between man and God.
  • The aim is not to be dissolved or absorbed into nothingness or into God, or reach another state of mind, but to (re)unite with God (which by itself is a process) while remaining a distinct person.
  • It is an invocation of Jesus’ name, because Christian anthropology and soteriology are strongly linked to Christology in Orthodox monasticism.
  • In a modern context the continuing repetition is regarded by some as a form of meditation, the prayer functioning as a kind of mantra. However, Orthodox users of the Jesus Prayer emphasize the invocation of the name of Jesus Christ that St Hesychios describes in Pros Theodoulon which would be contemplation on the Triune God rather than simply emptying the mind.
  • Acknowledging "a sinner" is to lead firstly to a state of humbleness and repentance, recognizing one’s own sinfulness.
  • Practicing the Jesus Prayer is strongly linked to mastering passions of both soul and body, e.g. by fasting. For the Eastern Orthodox not the body is wicked, but "the bodily way of thinking" is; therefore salvation also regards the body.
  • Unlike mantras, the Jesus Prayer may be translated into whatever language the pray-er customarily uses. The emphasis is on the meaning not on the mere utterance of certain sounds.
  • There is no emphasis on the psychosomatic techniques, which are merely seen as helpers for uniting the mind with the heart, not as prerequisites.

A magistral way of meeting God for the Eastern Orthodox, the Jesus Prayer does not harbor any secrets in itself, nor does its practice reveal any esoteric truths. Instead, as a hesychastic practice, it demands setting the mind apart from rational activities and ignoring the physical senses for the experiential knowledge of God. It stands along with the regular expected actions of the believer (prayer, almsgiving, repentance, fasting etc.) as the response of the Orthodox Tradition to St. Paul‘s challenge to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess 5:17).[9][6] It is also linked to the Song of Solomon‘s passage from the Old Testament: "I sleep, but my heart is awake" (Song of Solomon 5:2). The analogy being that as a lover is always conscious to his or her beloved, people can also achieve a state of "constant prayer" where they are always conscious of God’s presence in their lives.


"There isn’t Christian Mysticism without Theology, especially there isn’t Theology without Mysticism", writes Vladimir Lossky, for outside the Church the personal experience would have no certainty and objectivity, and "Church teachings would have no influence on souls without expressing a somehow inner experience of the truth it offers". For the Eastern Orthodox the aim isn’t knowledge itself; theology is, finally, always a means serving a goal above any knowledge: theosis.

The individual experience of the Eastern Orthodox mystic most often remains unknown. With very few exceptions, there aren’t autobiographical writings on the inner life in the East. The mystical union pathway remains hidden, being unveiled only to the confessor or to the apprentices. "The mystical individualism has remained unknown to the spiritual life of the Eastern Church", remarks Lossky.

The practice of the Jesus Prayer is integrated into the mental ascesis undertaken by the Orthodox monastic in the practice of hesychasm. Yet the Jesus Prayer is not limited only to monastic life or to clergy. All members of the Christian Church are advised to practice this prayer, laypeople and clergy, men, women and children.

Eastern Orthodox prayer rope.

In the Eastern tradition the prayer is said or prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a prayer rope (Russian: chotki; Greek: komvoskini), which is a cord, usually woolen, tied with many knots. The person saying the prayer says one repetition for each knot. It may be accompanied by prostrations and the sign of the cross, signaled by beads strung along the prayer rope at intervals. The prayer rope is "a tool of prayer". The use of the prayer rope, however, is not compulsory and it is considered as an aid to the beginners or the "weak" practitioners, those who face difficulties practicing the Prayer. It should be noted here that the Jesus Prayer is ideally practiced under the guidance and supervision of a spiritual guide (pneumatikos, πνευματικός) especially when Psychosomatic techniques (like rhythmical breath) are incorporated. A person that acts as a spiritual "father" and advisor. Usually an officially certified by the Church Confessor (Pneumatikos Exolmologitis) or sometimes a spiritually experienced monk (called in Greek Gerontas (Elder) or in Russian Starets). It is not impossible for that person to be a layperson, usually a "Practical Theologician" (ie. a person well versed in Orthodox Theology but without official credentials, certificates, diplomas etc.) but this is not a common practice either or at least it is not commonly advertised as ideal.

Psychosomatic techniques

There aren’t fixed, invariable rules for those who pray, "the way there is no mechanical, physical or mental technique which can force God to show his presence" (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware).

People who say the prayer as part of meditation often synchronize it with their breathing; breathing in while calling out to God (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God) and breathing out while praying for mercy (have mercy on me, a sinner). Another option is to say (orally or mentally) the whole prayer while breathing in and again the whole prayer while breathing out and yet another, to breathe in recite the whole prayer, breathe out while reciting the whole prayer again. One can also hold the breath for a few seconds between breathing in and out. It is advised, in any of these three last cases, that this be done under some kind of spiritual guidance and supervision.

Monks often pray this prayer many hundreds of times each night as part of their private cell vigil ("cell rule"). Under the guidance of an Elder (Russian Starets; Greek Gerondas), the monk aims to internalize the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly. St. Diadochos of Photiki refers in On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination to the automatic repetition of the Jesus Prayer, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, even in sleep. This state is regarded as the accomplishment of Saint Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

The Jesus Prayer can also be used for a kind of "psychological" self-analysis. According to the "Way of the Pilgim" account and Mount Athos practitioners of the Jesus Prayer, "one can have some insight on his or her current psychological situation by observing the intonation of the words of the prayer, as they are recited. Which word is stressed most. This self-analysis could reveal to the praying person things about their inner state and feelings, maybe not yet realised, of their unconsciousness.". "While praying the Jesus Prayer, one might notice that sometimes the word “Lord” is pronounsed louder, more stressed, than the others, like: LORD Jesus Christ, (Son of God), have mercy on me, (a/the sinner). In this case, they say, it means that our inner self is currently more aware of the fact the Jesus is the Lord, maybe because we need reassurance that he is in control of everything (and our lives too). Other times, the stressed word is “Jesus”: Lord JESUS Christ, (Son of God), have mercy on me, (a/the sinner). In that case, they say, we feel the need to personally appeal more to his human nature, the one that is more likely to understands our human problems and shortcomings, maybe because we are going through tough personal situations. Likewise if the word “Christ” is stressed it could be that we need to appeal to Jesus as Messiah and Mediatior, between humans and God the Father, and so on. When the word “Son” is stressed maybe we recognise more Jesus’ relationship with the Father. If “of God” is stressed then we could realise more Jesus’ unity with the Father. A stressed “have mercy on me” shows a specific, or urgent, need for mercy. A stressed “a sinner” (or “the sinner”) could mean that there is a particular current realisation of the sinful human nature or a particular need for forgiveness." "In order to do this kind of self-analysis one had better start reciting the prayer relaxed and naturally for a few minutes – so the observation won’t be consciously “forced”, and then to start paying attention to the intonation as described above. Also, one might want to consciously stress on of the words of the prayer in particular when one wants to express a conscious feeling of situation. So in times of need stressing the “have mercy” part can be more comforting or more appropriate. In times of failures, the “a sinner” part, etc…)."

Levels of the prayer

Icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent (the steps toward theosis as described by St. John Climacus) showing monks ascending (and falling from) the ladder to Jesus.

Paul Evdokimov, a 20th century Russian philosopher and theologian, writes about beginner’s way of praying: initially, the prayer is excited because the man is emotive and a flow of psychic contents is expressed. In his view this condition comes, for the modern men, from the separation of the mind from the heart: "The prattle spreads the soul, while the silence is drawing it together." Old fathers condemned elaborate phraseologies, for one word was enough for the publican, and one word saved the thief on the cross. They only uttered Jesus’ name by which they were contemplating God. For Evdokimov the acting faith denies any formalism which quickly installs in the external prayer or in the life duties; he quotes St. Seraphim: "The prayer is not thorough if the man is self-conscious and he is aware he’s praying."

"Because the prayer is a living reality, a deeply personal encounter with the living God, it is not to be confined to any given classification or rigid analysis"an on-line catechism reads. As general guidelines for the practitioner, different number of levels (3, 7 or 9) in the practice of the prayer are distinguished by Orthodox fathers. They are to be seen as being purely informative, because the practice of the Prayer of the Heart is learned under personal spiritual guidance in Eastern Orthodoxy which emphasizes the perils of temptations when it’s done by one’s own. Thus, Theophan the Recluse, a 19th century Russian spiritual writer, talks about three stages:

  • The oral prayer (the prayer of the lips) is a simple recitation, still external to the practitioner.
  • The focused prayer, when "the mind is focused upon the words" of the prayer, "speaking them as if they were our own."
  • The prayer of the heart itself, when the prayer is no longer something we do but who we are.

Once this is achieved the Jesus Prayer is said to become "self-active" (αυτενεργούμενη). It is repeated automatically and unconsciously by the mind, having a Tetris Effect, like a (beneficial) Earworm. Body, through the uttering of the prayer, mind, through the mental repetition of the prayer, are thus unified with "the heart" (spirit) and the prayer becomes constant, ceaselessly "playing" in the background of the mind, like a background music, without hindering the normal everyday activities of the person.

Others, like Father Archimandrite Ilie Cleopa, one of the most representative spiritual fathers of contemporary Romanian Orthodox monastic spirituality, talk about nine levels. They are the same path to theosis, more slenderly differentiated:

  • The prayer of the lips.
  • The prayer of the mouth.
  • The prayer of the tongue.
  • The prayer of the voice.
  • The prayer of the mind.
  • The prayer of the heart.
  • The active prayer.
  • The all-seeing prayer.
  • The contemplative prayer.

In its more advanced use, the monk aims to attain to a sober practice of the Jesus Prayer in the heart free of images. It is from this condition, called by Saints John Climacus and Hesychios the "guard of the mind," that the monk is raised by the Divine grace to contemplation.

An interesting comparison in the Roman Canon is to be found in Jan van Ruysbroeck’s poem The 12 Béguines, which similarly exemplarises the shedding of distractions such as personal concerns through a common meditative focus.

Variants of repetitive formulas

A number of different repetitive prayer formulas have been attested in the history of Eastern Orthodox monasticism: the Prayer of St. Ioannikios the Great (754–846): "My hope is the Father, my refuge is the Son, my shelter is the Holy Ghost, O Holy Trinity, Glory to You," the repetitive use of which is described in his Life; or the more recent practice of St. Nikolaj Velimirović.

Similarly to the flexibility of the practice of the Jesus Prayer, there is no imposed standardization of its form. The prayer can be from as short as "Have mercy on me" ("Have mercy on us"), or even "Jesus," to its longer most common form. It can also contain a call to the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), or to the saints. The single essential and invariable element is Jesus’ name.

  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. (a very common form)

Sometimes "τον αμαρτωλόν" is translated "a sinner" but in Greek the article "τον" is used, a definite article so it reads "the sinner",

  • Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. (common variant in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as on Mount Athos)
  • Lord have mercy.
  • Jesus God in Heaven, Christ our Lord and Savior, have mercy on this poor sinner.
  • Jesus have mercy. (not an Orthodox formula)
  • Christ have mercy. (not an Orthodox formula)